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Eco-poetry

 

Viktor Postnikov*

   

The world has but one soul.

~ Goethe

 

What is Eco-Poetry?

My favourite verses and passages, the ones that I have occasionally collected over the years, have finally led me to the idea of writing this little essay. It is by no means a comprehensive, academic writing, a studyrather, some poetic vision that I have constructed for myself and would love to share with others. What I want to do is to convey the sacred feeling of unity with nature expressed by different poets throughout the ages and across the continents; a feeling that keeps us all together, irrespective of nationalities, races, cultures, or religions. The world has but one soulthese words of the great Goethe, taken as an epigraph, are now echoing in the East and West with new vigour and hope; for never in history were humans in such a vital need of spiritual unity.

Eco-poetry renders this unity to the world. It can be best described as an intuitive attempt to harmonize oneself with the world, a talk with God, enacted through nature. It is expressed in a multitude of ways, such as poetry and literature, painting and art, philosophy and music, and through many other spiritual techniques, which assist individuals to develop spirituality and to overcome their daily routine of survival. To be more precise, it is God who speaks to us through nature; and at such moments, when we are becoming vaguely aware of his existence, we try to respond by expressing our feelings through poetry. Such a response overrides our personal or cultural differences and communicates in a universal language. This is why we understand and love the poetical works of the great masters of yore, who thrived in varied backgrounds, and hear them, as if they were addressing us personally. Indeed, at that time, we hear the greatest of all poets.

Many of us do not believe in God. We may have our own ideals or imaginations. Yet gradually, as a collective human consciousness evolves, we may learn to recognize the chasm that separates us from the universal well-being. Then, eco-poetry will come out from the abode of poets and artists, and establish itself as a natural way of human behaviour: each expression becoming spontaneous and beautiful. Life itself will ultimately become poetry in its broadest sense.

Philosophies

The philosophies underlying eco-poetry find their origins in time immemorial, when our forefathers, in Tagores words, lived their lives in this inconceivable glorious universe, departing with a sense of wonder in their eyes and devotion still intact, when every touch of the universe struck a chord in their heart-lute producing chanting melodies that were always new.[1] Gradually, as civilizations evolved, this feeling of wonder decayed and was substituted by rational theories and religions. However, the repercussions of the old unity with the world are still heard in many philosophies and spiritual ways, particularly, in the philosophy of Zen Buddhism, which allows the possibility of gradual or sudden enlightenment, i.e., purification of mind and merging with all creation.

It was probably the Japanese, who developed Zen philosophy that was created to induce the long-lost spontaneity and feeling of beauty, who came closest to eco-poetry.[2]

When you attain enlightenment, the borders between the internal and external worlds vanish, and you experience initial consciousness. Now, you are free, bound neither by your body nor thoughts. You observe all things at once, without attachment to them, being imposed on circumstancesnot depending on them. Your nature is pure; thoughts come and go, leaving no traces. This is called prajnya-samadhi in Sanskrit. This is not an absentmindedness, as one might think; on the contrary, it is an ultimate alertness, which we cannot experience in an ordinary state of consciousness due to the impurities imposed by indryas (sensuous images of the Psyche).

Techniques

Although East and West have created different patterns of eco-poetry throughout the ages, they join in some common techniques that distinguish this type of poetry from the rest, namely: (1) feeling of enchantment, (2) emphasis on spiritual, rather than sensuous, (3) simplicity and spontaneity, (4) philosophical depth, (5) rhythm, attuned to eternity. To master such qualities, many philosophical schools are offering their methods, including physical and mental exercises (or practices), meditation, poetry, painting, martial arts, etc. (e.g., Rinzai or Soto schools in Japan). In shamanic cultures, special types of singing or dancing are practiced in order to invoke spiritual communion. Even in our Western world, when we are doing physical exercises, such as swimming or skiing, we can sometimes attain this state of unconscious spontaneity and unity with creation. Even a walk in the forest or observation of a work of art may induce this state of wholeness, or dhyana, in some of us, who are especially receptive to beauty.

Patriarchs of Eco-Poetry

Basho  

Eco-poetry originated apparently in ancient China, in the Tan period (618-907), then reached its acme in Japanese haikuextremely short poems (17 syllables), destined to induce the feeling of sadness (sabi) or beauty and mystery of the world. The masters of haiku intended to catch, in T.S. Eliots words, the interception of timeless with time, a secret meaning of nature and human life. Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), a patriarch of Zen-poetry, used sabi to peep into non-being by converging the subject into nearly nothing:

A raven, silent

on a bare branch

An Autumn evening!

D.T. Suzuki comments on this haiku: Here, there is great Beyond in a still raven, sitting on a branch. All things emerge from the mysterious abyss, and through each thing you can peep into it. No need to compose a hundred-line poem to express a feeling born out of that piercing. Once this feeling reaches its apogee, we hush, because no words can ever express it. Even 17 syllables are too many. Japanese masters of Zen, in compliance with Tao,[3] are trying to express their feelings with as few words, or paint strokes, as possible. When the expression is too rich, no place for suggestion is left. In suggestion lays the mystery of Japanese art.[4] The feeling of sabi impregnates the haikua constant feeling of illusion of being, its fleetingness, and its beauty. All personal attachments are removed, and thats why the sadness is more akin to wisdom than anguish. In other words, sabi is a union with not-I.

Basho bequeathed to his disciples, Raise your heart! After satorithe highest level of enlightenment, awakeningis experienced, return to the mundane world. Satori, says Suzuki, is like an everyday experience, only two inches above the ground. The very common things may lead to the enlightenment: a crab, crawling on a foot; raven, hushed on a tree branch; splash of water caused by a frogs leap. In the instance of satori, the mind lightens, the soul is flung open to the world, and all is seen in its uniqueness: flower in its flower-ness, tree in its tree-ness

Whitman  

In contrast to Japanese, almost non-existent verse, Walt Whitman (18191892), the great American poet, produces a torrent of words, with a spontaneity not unlike Zen masters. He is not converging, but rather expanding his poetry, having no limits, no norms. His Leaves of Grass collection[5] stands unrivalled in the expression of freedom and richness of beinga masterpiece of eco-poetry created in the West. The inner rhythm of his verse is being born out of the endless vistas that Whitman unfolds before us; the eternal questions that he poses suggestively appeal to our consciousness, not unlike the Zen koans:[6]

A child said What is grass? fetching it to me with full hands;

How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is anymore than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of a hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,

A scented gift and a rememberancer designedly dropt,

Bearing the owners name some way in the corners, that we

May see and remark, and say Whose?

From Song of Myself (Leaves of Grass)

He reveres every creature on earth, every life manifestation, and acknowledges their superiority over the artificial human artifacts. The following lines, from the same poem, may well serve as a hymn to all supporters of deep ecology:

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,

And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and an egg of the wren,

The tree-toad is a chef-duvre for the highest,

And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,

And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,

And the cow crunching with depressed head surpasses any statue,

And a mouse is a miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.

He does not despise humans, however. Whitman tracks down all the pangs of evolution that ultimately resulted in mans creation, from times immemorial, and in this praise to a man and a woman, surprisingly, we hear no arrogance based on human exclusiveness, as he asserts the innate kinship existing between the universe and human beings:

Immense have been the preparations for me,

Faithful and friendly the arms that have helped me.

Cycles ferried my cradle, rowing and rowing like cheerful boatmen,

For room to me stars kept aside in their own rings,

They sent influences to look after what was to hold me.

Before I was born out of my mother generations guided me,

My embryo has never been torpid, nothing could overlay it.

For it the nebula cohered it to an orb,

The long slow strata piled to rest it on,

Vast vegetables gave its sustenance,

Monstrous sauroids transported it in their mouths and

Deposited it with care.

All forces have been steadily employd to complete and delight me,

Now on this spot I stand with my robust soul.

Song of Myself (Leaves of Grass)

I deliberately cited this long piece of Whitman to show that his philosophy of unity between humans and the universe is quite opposed to anthropocentrism, or even Christianity, both putting humans at the top of creation.

Tagore  

A profound impact on eco-poetry in the world, and particularly in Asia, has been made by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), Indian thinker, writer and musician. His legacy is enormous in terms of language (Bengali), and the imagery and passion that he had for life. By overcoming the constant struggle, he discovers life as Gods greatest gift of love. That is why he says: The greenness of the grass is the divine poetry, mans form is the Gods lyric.[7] Some of his chef-duvres were written in perfect English and translated into many languages, namely: Gitanjali (Song Offerings) (1912), The Gardener (1913), Stray Birds, and other collections.

Let me quote some of his verses (masterly translated from Bengali by Indu Dutt), which parallel Whitmans idea of unity, as he reverts directly to God:[8]

As I look round the world,

A memory comes to my life:

I seem to find in everything

The union of you and me in limitless forms.

Agelessly I have lingered in the abode of skies,

I have forgotten much of it,

In the light that twinkles from star to star,

You and I must have swung together.

Looking at the grass-covered quivering earth

In the new light of the harvest month,

I search my soul

And the joy overwhelms my heart:

I seem to know this unuttered speech.

In the heart of the mute earth

An emotion is ever alive.

On this soil of teeming life,

You and I must have spent endless time.

In the golden light of autumn

We have trembled on so many blades of grass.

Millions of years ago, when the first dawn

Appeared on this earth,

Did you not take the spark of the suns rays

To weave it into my life?

Who knows how I came to be on that particular morn,

What form you gave me, hidden from my knowledge

To blossom forth?

O you ageless one, from time before memory,

You have been moulding me anew throughout the ages.

Abiding by me ever, you shall remain with me always.

Tagore, who seeks more personal relations with God than Whitman (an astonishing blend of Christianity and Upanishads!), still, according to Buddhist tradition, feels the same empathy to every object and every creature. He thus comments on his poem:

I feel that from time before time, through strange forgotten conditions, I have been evolved by Him, arriving at my present state of expression. The great memory of those series of existences running through the universal strain, sustained by Him, lies within me in unconsciousness. That is why I can feel an old bond of unity with creepers and trees, birds and beasts of this world. That is why this vastly mysterious and immense universe does not appear terrifying or unfriendly.

Tagores philosophy of religion is indeed universal; for it encompasses the elements of all major world religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Zen and Taoism. It is meant, in his words, to realize the relationship of perfect love between the Supreme Soul and the soul of all created beings.[9]

Goethe  

Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832), the German poet, who, undoubtedly, is the most ecological amongst European poets, and also the most scientific in the Western sense. I compare Earthhe said on account of his barometrical observations of the earths atmospherewith an enormous living thing, which constantly inhales and exhales.[10] He was just as unfathomed as the earth itself. His natureas compared to Basho, Whitman, Tagoreis pro-active, searching, creative. In social life he did not recognize those demonic[11] laws that reign in the universe. He does not accept French revolution and holds (generally speaking) a reactionary loyalist side. His motivation? Violence is contrary to nature. The dispute on the origin of species meant much more to him than social upheavals: To know nature is to feel the divine breathing; every scientific discovery is simultaneously a religious event. The discord between the knowledge and faith that beleaguers the heart of modern man was unknown to Goethe: he was the first (and, probably, the last) man to succeed in resolving this dichotomy: I was always confident in that the world could not have been sustained, were it not simpleone of the profound insights of Goethe. The simplicity of the world is a wondrous, mysterious, and divine thing: We all are strolling amongst mysteries; the highest that humans may attain in apprehending the world is the feeling of wonder (Erstaunen). This affiliates him to the poets cited above. He also believed in immortality of spirit, as a derivative of nature, since the latter is immortal: Never, at no circumstances, there may be annihilation of spiritual forces in nature; for nature never wastes its treasures so thoughtlessly

A myriad of generations in the West were fascinated by his scope of thought, and, of course, his major poemFaustbecomes the climax of all his strivings where he gives the long-awaited answer to beleaguered humanity. Surprisingly, this answer is in striking harmony with contemporary environmental movement (but, paradoxically, contradicts Goethes social conformism!). His reference to rotten mud is, of course, allegorical and relates to human vices. Here is the last monologue of Faust,[12] where we find two lines of Goethes final wisdom:

Faust

Up to the hills the slough ascends,

The rotten mud is thick and stinking;

To drain away this deadly stock

Is my concluding task!

I will create a vast, new land

Where everyone could work unhindered,

Where herds and people will rejoice

And heavens blossom in the wheat field.

While yonder there the seas enrage

Behind protective walls; well mend

Each minute flaw, each small disorder.

I am devoted to this thought!

My years have not been spent in vain

For I can see the final wisdom:

Hes only worth a life on Earthwho perseveres each passing day

to liberate the folks and land.[13]

Then I would say:

The moment, stay!

The ages would not have the strengths

To wipe away my footsteps trodden.

Forerunning this amazing moment,

I have the blessing of the day.

Worlds Eco-Poets

Powerful sources of eco-poetry are contained in the creative work of many of the worlds poets. We may notice a variety of directions, genres, and forms. Indeed, poetry is as diverse as life itself; whence it derives the non-withering power and lively interest. Goethe compared the history of civilization to a grandiose fugue, in which each nation, by turns, has its own distinctive voice. To maintain the beauty of this human symphony, each voice must have its own timbre and sound. And we hear humble, almost Japanese, verses of Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) and pensive poems of Robert Frost (1874-1963); aphoristic poems of William Blake (1757-1827) and lyrical poetry of William Wordsworth (1770-1850); mystic essays of Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949) and deeply ecological verses of Fyodor Tyutchev (1803-1873)to name just a few of those classics who have intertwined their colours and sounds into the universal fabric of eco-poetry. Many indigenous cultures have cultivated their own eco-poets that the outside world is simply unaware of; but despite difference in cultures, all eco-poets speak the same languageand that is, of course, the universal language of nature, as another Japanese master, Kobayasi Issa, once said:

No aliens in this world!

We all are brothers

Under the cherry blossom trees

They will always be our teachers, our beacons in this turbulent world, so theres no reason to be downhearted, really.

Will Beauty Save the World?

What is beauty? Has it a universal measure? And what is it that Dostoyevsky meant when he said Beauty will save the world? I think eco-poetry, to some extent, answers these questions, and offers an opportunity for humanity to come to its senses.

To begin with, beauty is not a human invention; it exists already. It is a universal law that we are only now beginning to grasp (for humanity is at its pre-mature stage). And it cannot be perceived through mere contemplation, or logic, or language. I can only emphasize that it is the wholeness that we lack. All cultural strivings collectively experienced are only a bleak approximation to it; our self-willed, anthropocentric civilization has created a synthetic beauty, expressing itself in artificial things, or products, where limited function and fashion ousted the primordial criteria of beauty. The aesthetics (and ethics) have been developed during centuries; such ethics are essentially a human-centred bias. Even Oscar Wilde, the genius artist with an exquisite mind, was very wary about nature and perceived beauty only in inorganic materialism. We can readily see similar trends today in the beautification of virtual reality and of cyberspace. Having not understood nature, and, consequently, not seemingly capable of coping with it, mankind has imagined itself into the type of world that we suppose we may easily manipulate and tame.

Lets hope, however, that humans are not altogether insensitive creatures (for they are the product of nature, after all). Maybe an impending ecological catastrophe, in one way or other, will remind us of the poetry that we are all liable to lose.

It is for the union of you and me

that there is light in the sky.

It is for the union of you and me

that the earth is decked in dusky green.

It is for the union of you and me

that night sits motionless

with the world in her arms;

dawn appears opening the eastern door

with sweet murmurs in her voice.

The boat of hope sails along on the currents of

Eternity towards that union.

Flowers of the ages are being gathered together

For its welcoming ritual.

From R. Tagores Our Universe

*** *** ***

 

References

-          Barret, W. (ed.) 1956. Suzuki, D.T. Zen Buddhism. Selected Writings. New York.

-          Dutt, Indu (trans.) 1980. A Tagore Testament. Jaico Books.

-          Grigorieva, T. 1993. Born by Japans Beauty. Moscow: Iskusstvo (in Russian).

-          Murphy, F. (ed.) 1977. Walt Whitman. The Complete Poems. Penguin Books.

-          St. John, Donald P. 1992. Whitmans Ecological Spirituality. The Trumpeter: Vol. 9-3.

-          Sytin, I.D. (ed.) 1914. D.S. Merezhkovsky, Complete Writings, vol. VII (Vetchnye Sputniki). Moscow (in Russian).

-          T.H. Johnson (ed.) 1955. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

-          Tagore. R. 1980. Our Universe. (Indu Dutt trans). Jaico Books.

-          Ueda, M. 1970. Matsuo Basho. New York, NY.


* Viktor I. Postnikov is a researcher and poetry translator, born in St. Petersburg, Russia (1949). After receiving PhD in Electrical Engineering from Kiev Polytechnic, he worked extensively as a scientist and educator in the energy field. Chernobyl, however, put an end to his technical career and brought him into the environmentalist camp. He began translating authors of spiritual dimensions, such as Whitman, Tagore, Basho. He also translates Russian spiritual poetry into English. Now, his interests extend to deep ecology and Eastern philosophies.

[1] Dutt, Indu (trans.) 1980. A Tagore Testament. Jaico Books.

[2] After this essay had been completed, the author had an opportunity to read the beautiful book on Buddhist environmentalism Dharma Rain (Stephanie Kaza and Kenneth Kraft, eds. Shambala 2000), which may serve as an example of merging Buddhist living traditions with modern environmentalism.

[3] Barret, W. (ed.) 1956. Suzuki, D.T. Zen Buddhism. Selected Writings. New York.

[4] Tao, or The Waycentral philosophical category of Taoism, meaning the axis of the Universe, the dynamic balance between the extremes. Taoism is very wary about logical discourse and hinges on the spontaneity of nature.

[5] Murphy, F. (ed.) 1977. Walt Whitman. The Complete Poems. Penguin Books.

[6] Koansnonsensical riddles, used by Zen masters to enlighten the disciples.

[7] Here and further, quotations from Grigorieva, T. 1993. Born by Japans Beauty. Moscow: Iskusstvo. (in Russian).

[8] Dutt, Indu (trans.) 1980. A Tagore Testament. Jaico Books.

[9] Ibid.

[10] My translation from the Russian edition: Goethe, J.W., Selected Works. 1950. Moscow.

[11] From daimonGod, in specifically Goethean, ancient sense.

[12] My translation from the Russian edition: Goethe, J.W., Selected Works. 1950. Moscow.

[13] Emphasis mine.

 

 

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